A very painful translation experience

January 28, 2008 at 1:39 am | Posted in Everyday Life | Leave a comment

So there is an elementary school where I teach English every Thursday. It is one of my absolute favorites because the kids are well behaved, the school is practically brand new, and even though I do plan with the teachers they usually leave me to my own devices.


However, last week they said they wanted to do a class with the 6th graders where they split into groups and memorize a play in order to perform it the next week. These are elementary school kids so it’s not really plausible to have them perform Macbeth as much as I would have loved to. 


The school already had their own idea and picked out a children’s book called はらぺこあおむし which after some research turned out to be an American book called The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It sounded feasible to me and they were pretty much set on it so I thought I was pretty much set for Thursday.


However on Tuesday I get an email from the teacher with a long body of Japanese and only one sentence at the top: “Please translate this.” It turns out that they lost the English version of the book and were too cheap to buy a new one.


Now I don’t really have a problem with translating but this whole sequence was just incredibly counter-productive. For one it’s not really ideal to take something that has already been translated into a language and then translate it back to original language. But there really was no choice and it was an easy translation so I typed it up in an hour and sent it back to him.


Well I show up that Thursday morning with a print out of the translation and sit down at my desk. The teacher then runs up to me and asks if I can write out the translation in katakana. For the uninitiated(and believe me you are better off) katakana is the alphabet that is used primarily for loan words that were derived from other languages. However the problem arises in that it is impossible to replicate English or basically any other language with the scarce number of sounds present in Japanese. 


I tried to refuse his request but he said it would be impossible without the pronunciation help. After giving a long sigh and telling him i will try, I promptly got a headache after doing about three sentences and just gave up. I had never tried to do this before and the only way to describe it is just painful. It’s the linguistic equivalent of trying to force a square block into a round hole. 


Eventually the teacher came back, probably wondering why I had been just rubbing my temples for the last five minutes, and offered to finish it up for me. 


Eventually the class went okay, but I spent most of my time trying to correct their Katakana-English pronunciation.


Moral of this story is to fight this trend if they ever try to force it into my class again.


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